What’s the Use of Student Surveys?

If you’re trying to get an accurate sense of a teacher’s classroom, asking students about their experience is common sense. That’s what student surveys do: they ask kids whether they think their teachers care about them, ensure they understand lessons and push them to excel. But how does this actually help teachers and school leaders?

I saw the potential of student surveys firsthand this past school year, when we gave out surveys to students of 700 teachers in nearly 50 schools in four cities. That included Washington, D.C., where I coach principals at several charter schools.

We had read plenty about the reliability of surveys, including the MET research showing that surveys were predictive of future performance, and our own recent paper, Leap Year, which found that survey results showed a positive correlation to performance information from classroom observations and principal evaluations. So I was excited to actually get to use them.

It was just our first year, so schools didn’t use survey results as part of teachers’ formal performance evaluations. But the principals I coach reviewed them to prepare for the end-of-year conversations they have with everyone on staff.

I recently sat down with a principal to prepare for these conversations. She was concerned about a particular teacher’s classroom management skills after seeing kids disrupting lessons during classroom observations.

Together, we reviewed the teacher’s student survey results, which supported the principal’s worry about classroom management. The students had some positive things to say, with most agreeing that the teacher believed in them. But not a single student agreed that “Students in this class follow directions the first time”—on that item, the teacher got a score of zero.

Seeing her perceptions echoed by the teacher’s students was powerful for the principal. Even the best classroom observations are just snapshots in time, and it’s not clear that observers can determine what students are getting out of a particular lesson. But the survey data came from students, who saw this teacher on the job all day, every day—and they experienced what the principal had seen. With that additional layer of understanding, the principal set a clear course to help the teacher improve: she would tell the teacher to focus on giving students more specific directions, and to follow through to make sure they were completing them.

We’re still figuring out how best to administer and use student surveys. We’re also validating our surveys internally this summer, to make sure that they track with other measures of classroom performance, like classroom observations and students’ test results.

One big takeaway we had this year was to administer them earlier; rather than waiting until the year is almost over to get back the results, we’re adjusting our timelines to make sure principals and teachers get the results back in late winter or early spring, when they can still use that feedback to improve their performance with those students.

In addition, although principals are pretty receptive to survey data in general, they need more training on how to read it accurately, so we’re developing webinars and group training sessions to get them up to speed. And we are also thinking about new ways to help them review multiple measures of classroom performance together, including a possible school report card that would include student survey results.

But the big question here is whether survey results are related to particular classroom practices. What do teachers whose students give them high ratings do differently, and are there similarities that these teachers share? It’s too soon to say, but we hope to study these teachers to find out. It’s one thing to ask students what they think, but another to put those opinions to their best use. Over the next year or two, we’re aiming to do both.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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